Pure Paris

by Gerald Moorhead

The calm subtlety of photographs by architect Frank Welch reveals an alert, perceptive eye trained in painting and architecture.

Born in Paris (Texas of course) and raised in nearby Sherman, Welch studied drawing and painting as a youngster at Austin College. He admits the influence of realist illustrators, like Norman Rockwell and his uncle Jack, who also drew for Saturday Evening Post. Welch entered Texas A&M in liberal arts for a year, and returned after 20 months in the army to study architecture.

Welch first visited Paris in 1953 on a Fulbright Scholarship to study architecture at the Ecole des Beaux Arts. Finding empty studios at the “moribund” Ecole, he received permission to study in the city with a camera instead. Having had no previous experience with photography, the change was naively bold: plans to publish a book were even developed. He bought a Leica at the army PX, someone showed him how to use it, and he spent six months randomly wandering the city; not in search of preconceived images, but creatively open to whatever he might encounter.

Henri Cartier-Bresson’s book The Decisive Moment had just been published and it gave Welch his first exposure to photographic issues. Similar backgrounds in painting (see the two-part article on Cartier-Bresson in the New Yorker, October 23 & 30, 1989) produce parallels in the photography of Cartier-Bresson and welch, most notably the emphasis on composition. The premise of visualizing and capturing a picture at just the right moment for the confluence of form, action, and meaning inspired Welch and gave direction to his peregrinations.

A return trip to Paris 25 years later in 1978 produced photos nearly indistinguishable from those taken earlier, continuing the exploration of similar themes and portraying a city apparently unchanged.

Several themes emerge from the work shown at Rice. With few exceptions, architecture is used as a frame or backdrop to the composition. Only a couple of shots are of architectural still lifes, inevitably recalling Atget (in Old Paris, what else). Facades, doorways, windows, cafes, and street vistas define space and order the picture place. The subjects, however, are people, isolated figures, or tightly composed groups.

Within the compositional space of architecture, the second theme is the figure, detached from other people and seemingly alone in a neutral urban environment. The figure may be the focus of the frame, with parallel or complimentary organizing lines/objects in the architectural surroundings. Or the figure may be a mere shadow, a scale device to measure the space in which it moves.

The evenness of character in the work exhibited may be traced to the preferences of the curator, Geoff Winningham. Photos of a more architectural content commenting on the clash of modern development in the old city were not chose to be shown.

In marked contrast to much photojournalism or “street photography,” the photographs of Frank Welch imply no moral judgment or socio-political agenda. The images of people amidst places are also not the nostalgic or romantic illusions of an American in Paris. Welch’s photos achieve their beauty (yes, beauty) from the strengths and subtleties of graphic composition, not emotional pleading. There is no symbolism or hidden meaning requiring explication.

Recording life in the city, Welch captures his visions with an instinctive sense of order that, however, does not burden the frame with excessive structure. Welch approaches his subjects frontally, never from a distorting angle. It is a painterly viewpoint of thoughtful framing and an architect’s construction of forms and surfaces that are solid and still.

Without an emotional burden or an artificial “artistic” abstraction, these photos come as close as possible to the ideal of objectivity possible with photography, which clearly “sees” without the intervening presence of the photographer. Welch’s images reflect the soul of Paris.

Gerald Moorhead is an architect and photographer living in Houston.